Communication Best Practices During A Pandemic Outbreak

Guy Walker
. 7 min read
As we continue to grapple with COVID-19 and with the threat of further pandemics in the future, we have outlined some best communications practices for organisations during a pandemic outbreak.
2020 was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the outbreak spread from Wuhan, across China, and then around the world, organisations and governments alike were left scrambling on how to best monitor, manage, and respond to the pandemic.
But this pandemic should not have come as a surprise to organisations and governments. Both the US and UK governments had recognised the threat and likelihood of a major pandemic outbreak in national reports, while the threats of SARS, MERS, avian influenza, swine flu and Ebola were constant reminders of the possibility of a major pandemic.
When governments began national lockdowns, many said it came too late. Governments and organisations were sluggish in their communication. They were slow to recognise the threat COVID-19 posed and thus ineffectively communicated with the public and employees about the risk, the actions needed to be taken and other precaution measures.
While to many planning and communication appears insignificant within the context of a public health crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “communication expertise has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis.”
As we continue to grapple with COVID-19 and with the threat of further pandemics in the future, we have outlined some best communications practices for organisations during a pandemic outbreak.

Monitoring and awareness of potential pandemic outbreaks

Firstly, organisations must identify and assess threats early. This pivotal element underpins any subsequent communications strategy.
Coronavirus has shown that governments and organisations often act too slowly. Organisations – who owe their employees a duty of care – must ensure to closely monitoring public health risks in order to safeguard their employee health and to protect their business operations.
WatchKeeper, which unifies an organisation’s assets and a vast array of external data into a single platform, provides a strong foundation for proactive pandemic monitoring. 
Risk data providers available within WatchKeeper delivered some of the first alerts on COVID-19. For instance, Dataminr first alerted on COVID-19 on December 30th 2019, seven days before the US government’s first announcement.
While these individual alerts are invaluable, the unified view that the WatchKeeper platform provides also is of immense value for organisations. When assessing the scale and severity of public health threats, it centralises a range of data in real-time – from government curfews to social media reports on hospital capacity.
When this is combined with WatchKeeper’s numerous features, such as automatic alerting, it has enabled organisations to proactively monitor pandemics and build a successful communications strategy as a result.

Identifying and locating potential pandemic outbreaks

When an alert comes in, just as some did in late December 2019 and early January 2020, how should an organisation react?
Initially, organisations must consider the existing and potential severity of the event. As mentioned, the numerous sources of external risk data provided by platforms like WatchKeeper can help organisations contextualise an outbreak.
Next, organisations must assess who needs to be notified. This may include those in close proximity to the outbreak, those who may be impacted and key decision-makers. Depending on the severity and location of the outbreak and the type of organisation, who needs to be contacted will vary.
When organisations unify their internal data in one place, this step becomes a lot simpler. By using a critical event management platform like WatchKeeper, organisations know who is where in real-time. Whatsmore, they will even be able to utilise features such as mass communications

Communicating and messaging around a pandemic

Once an outbreak has been identified, the decisions around messaging and communication methods become crucial. Organisations face a number of key decisions. Some advice on infectious disease-related messaging includes:
  • Notification method
One could pick text or voice-based delivery. Text-based messages could come via email, SMS, Slack and more. For major and time-sensitive alerts consider which method will be most quickly opened by recipients.
  • Recipients
As mentioned previously, organisations should assess if all the recipients need to have the information. For more localised outbreaks as seen with Ebola (EVD), managers may wish to notify only those in close proximity to the outbreak and some key decision-makers.
  • Decision making and clarity
Before sending any messages, organisations should ensure there is universal agreement from relevant decision-makers or managers on the aim of the message and the content. Security managers do not want later information to contradict their messages or to create confusion. 
  • Content
Ensure that messages are short and accessible. Organisations want to make sure everyone reads them. Additionally, focus on your core messaging too. People should be able to easily extract key information and should be encouraged not to panic.

Taking other key pandemic-related action

Once the initial alert has been sent out and key stakeholders notified, organisations need to consider a further range of actions following their first communication.
  • Travel policy
Organisations should keep monitoring the travel advice of their national health authorities. Where possible, they should cancel any trips abroad and move meetings and other events online or reschedule them for a later date. Any returning passengers should self-isolate and follow the most recent health guidance.
  • Health guidance
As with travel guidance, organisations should keep on top of the latest public health information. There are many rumours about viruses and diseases, particularly at the start of an outbreak. As such, companies should continue to monitor organisations like WHO, which publish bulletins on public health issues, share the latest information on the outbreak and often have Q&As around common questions.
  • Work-related updates
It is important for organisations during a pandemic to offer clarity to their employees. Much of this is dependent on executives and decision-makers being decisive and united in their decision making. Many organisations were slow and confusing when outlining COVID-19 working plans, expectations and duties. Timely and clear updates are the best way to avoid this confusion and reassure staff. It is essential to consider how best to continue to serve employees, customers, and other stakeholders. For instance, if in doubt, implement a work from home model with a review date. Yet simultaneously, when it comes to messaging, be aware that too many updates and too much communication can lead to message fatigue. Organisations want employees to be well informed but not overloaded with information.
  • Media briefings
Many organisations will be asked questions by the media. Organisations should ensure that they are aligned internally on key decisions. This will minimise the possibility of contradictions or confusion around messages. Both employees and the wider public will be watching. Organisations should consider how to approach questions about redundancies, operations, remote working, and public health more generally.

Analysing for improved pandemic readiness

There appears to be a broad scientific consensus that we will face numerous more pandemics in the future. Professor Matthew Baylis from the University of Liverpool confessed, “this is not the last pandemic we are going to face”.
As such, organisations should ensure they evaluate and review their pandemic communications plans, as COVID is unlikely to be the last time they are used. The events of the past year enable organisations to consider and review the various stages and processes relating to their pandemic communications.
Conducting an after-action review (AAR) is one of the most effective ways of doing this. An AAR is an in-depth and structured examination of an event that aims to improve organisational processes and resilience through reflection and analysis of past actions.
In the case of a pandemic outbreak, particular emphasis should be placed on how quickly a company identified the threat, the first communications, and how they managed the changing nature of the outbreak. Operations and employee well-being will likely depend on this again in the future.

WatchKeeper has helped clients with thousands of people and assets across the world monitor and manage the COVID-19 outbreak. To hear more about WatchKeeper and its other COVID-19 related services, go to watchkeeper.com or email us at info@watchkeeper.com.
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